Written by Laura Northrup, CNN
Three years after its debut, the Biotech Startup Investing Act is no more, but its impact on the media’s coverage of science startups is still being felt.
In 2013, founder Elizabeth Holmes was heralded by the media as the “Next Oprah,” shining a spotlight on patients and trials that would revolutionize cancer treatment. By 2016, after tripling her company’s valuation (at one point scoring a $10 billion valuation), Holmes was facing allegations of securities fraud, and last week was found guilty of misleading investors.
“The journalist’s job is to ask questions,” says Harlan Berkowitz, managing editor of CNET — who had described Holmes as a “great entrepreneur” on air in 2014. “It’s the start of the conversation with shareholders, with other people in the organization. Once that’s done, the conversation becomes the media’s — the telling of the story.”
The story never seemed quite right
Elizabeth Holmes appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in October 2013, where she explained how Luminex Corp had switched up drugs to treat patients better with her own anti-aging, cancer-fighting, self-described “80 percent accurate” screening technology — her Holmes-Luminex – 1.0.
However, new research released in June appeared to show that Luminex’s four drugs were unlikely to lead to cures. In March, one of the company’s pharmaceutical divisions had closed, and in early June, Luminex announced that it would no longer pursue an FDA approval for its drugs.
CNN anchor Andrew Dampf spoke with Holmes on air in July 2014 to discuss the future of her company. Here, Holmes discusses tech, Dr. Who and Snapchat.
In July 2014, fellow CNET editor Barbara Ortutay met with Holmes for an in-depth interview, during which she expressed her confidence in the company. Here, Ortutay asks Holmes about her favorite products.
In the months after her profile on Holmes, only a handful of news outlets provided breathless coverage of Holmes. One was a story published by VentureBeat titled “How to find out if Elizabeth Holmes really is a genius: Dig into the data.” In a high-stakes segment of Biotech Startup Investing, VentureBeat served up data “glimpses into” the shady business practices of Holmes and her company.
Yet Holmes did not feel lost in the press. In fact, according to Forbes, she opened the door to the press because she was frustrated with the media coverage, believing the Internet was to blame.
“This is hardly a scandal,” said Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois, in the Forbes feature. “Rather, it is an example of how well-crafted PR flourishes.
“In a free, modern capitalist society, there is no mechanism to check and correct a system of such ceaseless corporate growth and apparent perfection.”